It's all too fitting that David Bowie's final album, released just two days before his death, is the weird, woolly Blackstar, an album of avant-garde anti-pop recorded mostly with experimental New York jazz musicians. Ever since he became an international star by singing a trippy acoustic ballad about a space flight gone wrong, Bowie was our weirdest rock star, a man who built his entire career on taking huge risks and constantly reinventing his image and sound. This list, in some small, inadequate way, is an attempt to pay tribute to that. We will miss you, David.
1. “The Laughing Gnome” (1967)
Bowie had been kicking around the English rock scene for about three years when he released this novelty song, on which he plays straight man to his own sped-up, chipmunk-like vocals serving as the voice of the titular gnome. (“Haven't you got a 'ome to go to?” he asks. “No, I'm a gnome-ad,” the gnome replies.) Shockingly, “The Laughing Gnome” did not propel Bowie to superstardom — although it did, much to its creator's chagrin, chart in the U.K. in 1973 following the success of Ziggy Stardust.
2. “Please Mr. Gravedigger” (1967)
Where “The Laughing Gnome” went for pure camp, this closing track from Bowie's debut album, released that same year, manages to be both humorous and macabre, telling the tale of a murderous gravedigger with a nagging head cold, all with nothing more than Bowie's voice set against a backdrop of spooky sound effects.
3. “The Bewlay Brothers” (1971)
Side two of Bowie's fourth album, Hunky Dory, featured a series of tribute songs to his idols: Biff Rose, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed. But it ends with this eerie, indecipherable paean to the fictitious Bewlay Brothers, who may or may not be stand-ins for Bowie himself and his half-brother, Terry, a schizophrenic. Bowie said he wrote the song quickly in the studio and that its cryptic lyrics don't really mean much of anything, but it's hard not to read images of a difficult childhood into lines like, “I was stone and he was wax/So he could scream and still relax.”
4. “Warsawa” (1977)
Recorded with producer Brian Eno, this mostly instrumental track opened side two of Bowie's landmark 1977 album, Low. It made such an impression on a group of young musicians in Manchester, England, that they named their band Warsaw but later changed it to Joy Division.
5. “Boys Keep Swinging” on Saturday Night Live (1979)
Bowie turned himself into a giant marionette on SNL to perform the lead single from his 1979 album, Lodger. Bonus fun fact: the backup singer on the right is the now-legendary avant-garde new wave singer Klaus Nomi.
6. “Glass Spider” (1987)
The first track on side two of Bowie's otherwise forgettable '87 album, Never Let Me Down, began with a bizarre, spoken-word tale about a massive spider with “blue eyes, almost like a human's,” leading into a peppy new wave anthem apparently sung from the point of view of the spider's offspring (“Mommy come back, 'cause the water's all gone”). Bowie named his 1987 tour, which featured Peter Frampton on lead guitar, after the odd track, probably because it was a great excuse to make a stage that looked like a giant spider.
7. Tin Machine (1989-1991)
Bowie ended the most commercially successful decade of his career by announcing that he was putting his solo career on indefinite hold to focus on his new hard-rock band, Tin Machine. Although he did do a solo greatest-hits tour between the release of Tin Machine's two albums, Bowie otherwise made good on his word, releasing no new music under his own name for the next four years.Though widely panned by critics during its brief existence, Tin Machine's music has held up surprisingly well in the years since, even seeming to foreshadow the rise of grunge.
8. “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” (1995)
Reuniting with producer Brian Eno, Bowie made an impenetrable concept album called Outside, from which this was the lead single and video. Even bearing in mind that half the music videos in the mid-'90s looked like this, is still stands as one of Bowie's more head-scratching moments — and we mean that in the best possible way. [Update: The official video has sadly been pulled from YouTube, but this live performance from The Late Show With David Letterman is pretty great, too.]
9. “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” (2002)
On his 2002 album, Heathen, Bowie covered this obscure song by an equally obscure, late-'60s performer called The Legendary Stardust Cowboy — from whom, he admitted several times over the years, he borrowed the name “Stardust” for his most famous stage persona.
10. “Blackstar” (2015)
After reading this list, doesn't it make more sense that the Thin White Duke would end his illustrious career with this eerie space-jazz workout and its even more bizarre video, in which a blindfolded Bowie serenades a group of seemingly seizure-stricken dancers and a girl with a devil's tail, who discovers the skeletal remains of an alien astronaut? Well, no, not really, because nothing about this amazing video makes any sense. Still, we wouldn't have wanted Bowie to go out any other way.